PORTLAND, Ore. —
Does this Valentine’s Day find you looking for love? Maybe you’ve thought about online dating.
The success stories are advertised and talked about far and wide, but there are still some dangers lurking in this digital age.
Match, OK Cupid, e-Harmony, Tinder, Bumble – those are just a handful of the hundreds of sites with potential love matches just a click or a swipe away.
Most people know a couple who’s found love online. About 15 percent of American adults have tried online dating, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I was looking for a boyfriend, and I wanted to get married and have kids, and I was pretty open about that on the dating website,” said Andrea Benson, who had a much different experience. “He pretended like that’s what he wanted, too.”
That was the fall of 2012. Two months later she found herself getting trafficked and forced into prostitution.
Benson said, “He immediately uses social media against me and said, ‘You know, I have these pictures. I can use these videos against you. I’ve created a website for you. If you try and leave me, I’m going to ruin your life.’”
He did try, but three months into her living hell, a Portland police detective rescued her.
“There’s not a lot of safety on the dating websites,” Benson said.
Some online sites screen users, running them against a national sex offender database. Some sites don’t screen at all. Those are mostly the free sites.
“They are not there to protect us. We have to protect ourselves,” said Benson.
After her trafficker got out of prison he was immediately on five dating websites. Benson contacted each of those sites.
“And asked them what their protocol was for registered sex offenders, and only one replied and took him down. All the rest didn’t even reply,” she said.
Benson is now an advocate for sex trafficking victims and online safety. She said she missed a few warning signs. Her trafficker was on multiple dating sites and couldn’t vouch for a job or family ties. Police have more advice.
“Meet them in public. Don’t overshare maybe right away,” said Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson. “Trust your instincts, verify things that are a little shaky and if it sounds off, walk away.”
Benson’s is a cautionary tale, and it’s a story she wants people to hear.
“This can happen to anyone,” she said. “I was a college graduate, I had a great family; it wasn’t some sob story of how I got into this. I was just a normal girl looking for a boyfriend on a dating website.”